Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Performance art started in Texas and Gussie Nell Davis is proof positive thereof

My friends, Jeff and Heather Schrunk, have a daughter who is going off to school at Kilgore College and she's trying out to be a Kilgore Rangerette. So I'm posting this piece I wrote a couple of years ago in Allison's honor. We're proud of you, Allison!!!

I should probably save this piece for football season, but I happened to be in an area bookstore recently and saw a section on all things Texas featuring a coffee table book on the Kilgore Rangerettes…and I was inspired.

Kilgore College is in East Texas (Kilgore, to be precise), not far from Tyler where I grew up. I was raised steeped in the tradition of the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles (my mother’s best friend was one). Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler had the Southern Belles and it was a big deal to make the team.

The Kilgore Rangerettes, founded by Miss Gussie Nell Davis, were the first gals ever to form a drill team on the college level. And that, mis amigos, was the genesis of the world wide drill team movement.

But what is a drill team, y’all ask?

A drill team, as we understand it in Texas, is a dance team that creates routines based on dance movement rather than military drill. These teams usually do not usually carry anything and can perform to recorded music. They do that thing they do during halftime at football games.

The Kilgore Rangerettes were not Miss Davis’ first drill team, however. Miss Davis was a high school physical education teacher with a love for music and dance. In 1928, she gathered up the girls of Greenville High School, formed the “Flaming Flashes” and taught them do dance routines using batons, flags, drums, bugles and a variety of props…but mostly the girls just danced. While other schools had female drum and bugle corps or pep squads performing at football games, the Flaming Flashes were the first to twirl and dance.

Personal sidebar: my cousin Amy was a Greenville H.S. Flaming Flash back in the 1980s.

I’m practically kin to a legend.

Drill teams haven’t always been considered glamorous, however.

Miss Davis and her Rangerettes caught all kinds of hell in the 1970s about the drill team culture. Feminists and other critics pitched a fit at the perceived emphasis on physical attractiveness of drill team members, and the rigorous and authoritarian training involved. Critics spewed that drill teams, especially the Rangerettes, were a troupe of “sexist” and “mindless Barbie Dolls,” and their activity was inappropriate in a scholarly setting. Miss Davis fought back, saying there was nothing wrong in learning self-confidence, discipline, cooperation and the ability to perform precision dance, along with poise, etiquette, and personal grooming. Hard work, team work, and a “boss lady” were necessary ingredients to produce a dance performance judged better than that of the professional Radio City Rockettes. She said half-time and special-event performances by the Flaming Flashes or the Rangerettes gave young women the same acclaim usually reserved for male athletes and, once in awhile, the band. Miss Davis did fess up that she was “really a devil” in 1940 when she put the Rangerettes' skirts hemmed shamelessly at two inches above the knee. Other than that, the young women, according to her, were always dressed modestly and sex appeal never came up in (polite) conversation.

Those with a passing familiarity with drill teams may have heard of American Dance/Drill Team. Miss Davis and Dr. Irving Dreibrodt founded the organization in 1958 to provide a medium for professional instruction for dance and drill teams around the United States.

Miss Davis (and yes, I realize I’ve called her “Miss Davis” all the way through this; it’s a Texas thing, so y’all just deal with it) was honored by the Houston Contemporary Museum of Art in 1975 for creating a “living art form.” The Houston Contemporary Museum of Art is nothing to sniff at, even if Houston is the armpit of Texas. Getting that kind of honor is a very big thing. Houston may be Houston, but it’s also a big, ol’ city with some pretty big-name folks who know what art really is. I guess ol’ Gussie Nell was “performance art” before “performance art” was trendy…or trendy with the East and West Coast folks. Of course, I have a hard time putting Miss Davis up there with Jackson Pollock, Marina Abramovic or even the Blue Man Group…but there she sits, a pioneer in performance art alongside the big names, both famous and infamous.

Now, y’all can laugh about our crazy Texas obsession with drill teams and Miss Davis, but since they first high-kicked their way to popularity starting in 1940, the Rangerettes have appeared on the cover of Life Magazine and Paris Match, as well as having gone to more bowl games than the Dallas Cowboys.

Not bad for a troupe of gals in short skirts and cowboy hats.

Miss Davis died in 1993. I was standing in the newsroom of KLTV Channel 7 when the news came. Our producer, also raised in Tyler, ripped the copy from the Associated Press wire service and read it out loud to us. Right then and there we had a moment of silence for Miss Davis because even the non-Texans in the room knew that a legend had passed, and the world would never step-ball-change or stag leap the same way again.

The Rangerettes live on. You can find ‘em at Their rivals, the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles have their own equally high-tech and glossy site at And while it won’t help you understand the phenomenon any better, at least you’ll understand yet one more thing held dear by Texans…and quite possibly learn to appreciate a well-executed high-kick.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

So I wrote my congressman...

After this week's BS down in Austin, I got good and mad. And I can't call myself a Republican anymore. Until it stops acting like, sounding like, and smelling like the "Good Ol' Boys Club," the GOP can kiss my sweet support good-bye. God knows, they shoulda kissed me on the mouth and bought me dinner first.

To: Congressman John R. Carter

6544B S. General Bruce Drive

Temple, TX 76502

From: Janna Zepp


Salado, Texas 76571

June 26, 2013

Subject: the image of the Republican Party


I am one of your constituents, a Christian, and a sixth-generation Texan. Since 1983, when I turned 18 and was eligible to vote, I have voted in nearly every election, be it local, state, or federal. I vote. And it’s time you heard from me personally.

For 29 years, I have voted as a Republican, with very minor exceptions. This is the first year I stopped voting for anyone connected with the GOP. I am too embarrassed by what I see and hear from the Republican Party to consider myself a member anymore.

I don’t know that much about politics, but here is what I do know: While I don’t particularly care for the Democratic Party, and I am certainly not a fan of our president, right now, the Democrats are a far cry less offensive to women as the Republicans. They are mopping the floor with the GOP image-wise, Mr. Carter. And they might well be the majority in the state pretty soon if the Republicans do not wake up and see how women voters are leaving them in droves because of the Republican Party’s poor public image and perceived “War on Women.”

I’ve chosen not to cast my vote for Republican candidates in the future. In this past election, I pulled a straight Libertarian ticket. Why? Because as a woman, I no longer feel you have my best interests at heart. Members of your party consistently act like misogynistic buffoons in front of the media with no regard for their image or that of their party. They say exactly what they really think about women or they put their abject stupidity about women’s issues on display, and it is terrifying and embarrassing.

I am telling you this because I hope that you will tell your party brethren to wise up and quit shooting a hole in the foot of the party. Are women’s reproductive issues really worth sacrificing our 2nd Amendment rights or our personal wealth which will be lost to more taxes if the Democrats get a bigger toe-hold in Austin? Because you gentlemen have gotten all focused on how and when a woman has a child, and have turned off enough of the women in the State of Texas to the point that we don’t really care anymore that you are the party preserving our right to bear arms or to retain our hard-earned money. We see you as angry old white men bent on keeping us barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen because you think what is between our legs controls our intelligence and ability to make good decisions.

The issue of abortion does not affect me currently, but I have daughters. While I don’t view abortion as a means of birth control, I don’t want that option altered drastically or taken off the table for me or my girls by anyone, let alone a man who will never have to make the horrible decision himself. You will argue that the GOP does not want to end abortion entirely, and that you are trying to make things better for us. But that is NOT the perception your party has given us. And if you know anything about communications and public image, the perception IS the reality.

Pick your battles carefully, sir. I advise you, as your employer (for that is what we voters are) to leave the abortion issues alone, and urge your Republican brothers and sisters to take a good hard look at the image your party has nationally. Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, gets what I’m saying enough that he said it himself openly at the Republican Governor’s Association just last year. I’d hate to think that Louisiana might have one up on Texas in understanding its voters. But after this last debacle in Austin, it is apparent that you Texas boys just don’t get it. Rick Perry gets it least of all.

And now, the women’s vote is just one more thing, y’all just aren’t gonna get.

Don’t mess with Texas women’s rights. Don’t mess with our access to healthcare. And for crying out loud, know what y’all are talking about when the media turns their cameras on you.


Janna Zepp

Texas voter

Friday, June 14, 2013

It’s getting hotter: the Texas survival guide for summer heat

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s getting warmer outside.

For those of you not familiar with our Texas summers, pay close attention. Your survival depends on it.

Central Texas weather, like most of the weather in Texas, is deceptive. The relative low humidity around here, plus a breeze, will lull you into a false sense of security about temperatures.

Don’t be fooled.

One spring day, I was at one of Fort Hood’s post exchanges to shop. I parked next to a car with a poodle locked inside and waiting for his family to return. He wasn’t waiting patiently and he looked a little panicked. The windows were slightly down, but the outside temperature was 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside a car, temps can rise to 100 degrees or more in no time, even with the windows slightly open. A dog can survive internal body temperatures of 104°F for only a few minutes before brain damage or death happens. Even on mild days a parked car can quickly become a killer.

I called the PX manager and he put out a page over the store’s speaker system asking the family to rescue their dog. I hope the poodle was okay, even if the family was probably a little peeved with me. It’s a risk I’m willing to take for a little critter. And it would have broken the hearts of that poodle’s people to come back to the van and find him seriously sick…or worse.

The dog-owners’ actions weren’t malicious at all. It’s just that the day was nice; the weather pleasant. Who would have thought how hot the interior of a car could get in a short time?

Every year, there’s a tragic news story about a baby or toddler who was left inside a car while the parent went indoors for “just a minute.” In Texas, as with any place with hot weather, staying in a car during the hot months can be a death sentence. I don’t leave my daughters alone anywhere, especially inside my car.

I’m not a health professional. I’m not an authority on heat-related health issues. But I am a parent and a pet owner, and I’m occasionally accused of having basic common sense. So from one parent to another, please don’t leave your children or animals in a car alone, especially in the heat.

According to the Texas Department of Health, our humidity can make heat-related illness even worse. So even though Central Texas has lower humidity than my own home region of East Texas, it’s still there and it can kill you if you’re not careful. I’m not even gonna talk about what it does to your hair.

Texans almost always follow up comments about any summertime event with this: “It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the humidity.” Baseball games, barbecue parties, the rodeo and your cousin’s wedding “would have been great…except for the humidity.” Heck, a nuclear bomb blast might even be tolerated…except for the humidity.

Summertime around here is NOT the time to have your air conditioning die on you. Have it inspected and your coolant recharged now before the summer crush…and I do mean “crush” and not “rush.” Friends, calls to the A/C guy only start as a rush. By July, it’s a crush and you might not get seen until October. I won’t live in a house without ceiling fans, either. Have some installed if you don’t have ‘em already.

During the hot months, drink lots of water and fluids with electrolytes in them. Stay away from colas, coffee, tea and alcohol because they will dehydrate you further. If you stop sweating, feel inexplicably loopy or your skin is dry and red, get help.

Leather seats in your car may seem like a luxury until you experience them during a Texas summer. Don’t wear shorts on a leather seat in the summer. I’m just letting you know now. If you do, you’ll either fry or stick…or both. And please don’t let your babies sit on ‘em without at least a bath towel between them and the seats. Burns aren’t fun for anyone.

As a friend of mine can tell you, gummi candy will not survive in a car during the summer. Her son and my daughters were toddlers at the time and things got left behind in our cars, much as they do now. That summer, my friend learned that gummi spiders left in a car in August will adequately replace commercial-grade adhesives with regard to stickiness.

I can’t talk about Texas summers without mentioning the Texas sun. We’ve all known about skin cancer long enough to know that prolonged periods of sun exposure can be deadly. Please wear sunscreen, even if you don’t think you need it. I only buy makeup with sunscreen in it. I work mostly indoors, but even a few minutes in the Texas sun can hurt you. I love a great tan too, but I get mine sprayed on rather than risk sun damage. And yeah, I feel kinda like I’m getting a paint job at Earl Scheib. But at least I’m not increasing my chances of developing melanoma.

You can rib us about our wintertime driving, but Texans know to drive during the summer in the early hours of morning or at night when it’s cooler. The chances of a breakdown during the summer seem higher. It’s not a bad idea to have some kind of summertime emergency kit in your car, and certainly always carry your cell phone with you. Make sure it’s fully charged before you leave the house.

I tell y’all this because some of you are new to Texas. I hope that y’all come to love this state as much as I do, and I’d hate to think your experience with us would end tragically. Be safe and take the heat seriously. The consequences of not doing so aren’t cool.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Fire ants both boon and bane of Texas existence

If ever there was a bug with a bad attitude, it’s the fire ant.

For those new to Texas, you’ve probably recently met the little pest. If you haven’t, well…I want to live where you’re living.

Fire ants, specifically red imported fire ants, are not native to Texas. They showed up in the United States in 1929, when a cargo ship using soil as ballast arrived in Mobile, Ala. from South America. The ants have been traveling west ever since, and hit Texas in the 1950s. They now infest the eastern two-thirds of the state, and some urban areas in western Texas.

Texas is home to a variety of ant species, so it can be hard to tell the difference among them based on physical characteristics. But there is no mistaking the behavior. Kick over an ant pile and the ants, if they are a native species, will scatter and hide. If they’re fire ants, they’ll come right up after you. In fact, you can almost hear fire ants cussing you as they attack.

I’ve read that fire ant mounds get to be about 18 inches in diameter, but I once saw a mound on a farm in Centerville that was at least five feet in diameter and almost three feet high. I assumed it was fire ants; I didn’t stick around to find out.

In Texas, getting stung by fire ants is almost a rite of passage. Mamas will talk about their children’s first, second and sometimes third fire ant encounters. It’s just one of those things to be experienced that is not a question of “if” it happens, but “when” it happens. And it’s not pleasant.

I’ve been lucky; I’ve only been stung a couple of times in my life by one or two ants at a time. My childhood bug misery was mostly thanks to chiggers, not fire ants. Texas children get wise to fire ants pretty quick, so there’s usually not a second round of fire ant hell.

If the eyeball-popping pain of the initial sting doesn’t get your attention, you can tell you’ve been bitten by fire ants by the white pustules on your skin. Word to the wise: don’t break open those pustules. They can get infected, and you really don’t want that. There are different treatments for bites listed on the Internet, but the effectiveness of some remedies is questionable. Ask a medical professional before trying any of them.

All sorts of legends have sprung up around fire ants, mostly to do with killing livestock. And yes, folks, it’s true; calves, kittens, puppies and birds have fallen prey to these nasty ants. People have died, but that’s because of lethal allergic reactions to fire ant stings, and that really doesn’t happen very much.

Mostly, fire ants are just a painful nuisance.

South Americans don't have nearly the problem that the United States does. They only have 20 percent as many fire ants as we do, probably because the natural predators of fire ants, like the Brazilian phorid fly, don’t live in North America.

If there is anything positive to be said about fire ants, it’s this: yards with fire ant mounds do not have ticks. In fact, ol’ Solenopsis invicta supposedly likes to eat fleas, ticks, termites, cockroaches, chinch bugs, mosquito eggs and larva, and scorpions. Most Texas farmers and ranchers have discovered that, while they may have a fire ant problem in their pastures, they don’t usually have a problem with anything else. And fire ants bind us together as a people. They give all good Texans something to complain about.